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Chris Honoré: Appealing to the best in us

Watching the Republican debates, followed by the collateral speeches, I often try to imagine the candidates as president of the United States. I find that I do this most often with Donald Trump as he engages in the perpetual drama and denigration of his fellow Republicans, all the while avoiding ever mentioning his vision for America, other than in the most obscure terms. We will have the biggest and best equipped military so no one will ever “mess” with us; millions of jobs will return to the U.S. on day one. His solution for our complex immigration problem — well, you already know what that is.

I cannot imagine Trump inhabiting the White House, with all of the requisite decisions inherent in the job, to include the responsibility of acting as our commander in chief. I shudder.

But what the Republicans have done, with all of their bitter acrimony and sustained personal insults, is to give me cause to reflect on the measured, reserved and articulate president who has inhabited the White House for more than seven years.

This is by no means an apologia for this administration. It hasn’t been perfect. How could it be? Rather, I am simply pointing out that one result of watching the Republican contest has been to cast the leadership of Barack Obama into relief.

Caught up in the maelstrom of this long primary journey, we tend to forget that whether you agree with his policies or not, he has been, here and abroad, always elegant in his restraint and poise while possessing a genuine empathy and an uncommon intelligence. And not to forget that on that winter day when he first took the oath of office, Republican leaders were meeting in a hotel not a mile away, pledging to do all within their power to obstruct Obama’s every initiative. Party and ideology before country.

But to know the character of our president, it is helpful to go back to a few of his speeches to realize that his presidency has been like no other, possessed of an uncommon dignity. He was not just the first black man to hold the office, but what he said resonated.

I read parts of his victory speech, delivered in Grant Park on Nov. 4, 2008: “Tonight, because of what we did on this day, in this election, at this defining moment, change has come to America … Tonight we have proved once more that the true strength of our nation comes not from the might of our arms or the scale of our wealth, but from the enduring power of our ideals: democracy, liberty, opportunity and an unyielding hope.”

Now try and imagine Donald Trump uttering those words.

When President Obama attended a memorial service for those 20 children and 6 staff killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School, he spoke for the nation when he said, “You are not alone in your grief. We have wept with you and our hearts are broken.” In that moment, in a gesture that has become all too familiar, he pushed back welling tears. He knew that he was consoling those who were inconsolable, whose loss was beyond comprehension, those small second graders now gone forever, gun violence a shroud not to be denied.

Now try to picture Donald Trump standing in his place.

Who else but President Obama could have delivered the eulogy for the Rev. Clementa Pinckney and eight others, all members of Charleston's Emanuel AME Church, killed as they sat in the church’s sanctuary by a deranged white supremacist. The president delivered a moving and heartfelt speech in the cadence and rhythm of a church pastor, pointing out that the fear and recrimination the shooter had hoped to create were transformed instead into forgiveness and above all grace. Grace. How sweet the sound.

His appeal has always been to the best in us. He has walked across the stage, both here and internationally, with dignity and style and above all hope. He grasped the complexity and difficulty of his office with all of its inherent vagaries. We may look back in a year or two and realize that we had a president who was, in so many ways, better than we were.

Chris Honoré of Ashland is a Daily Tidings columnist.